Linux Is Good for You, Part 4: How to Find the Right Linux–based Operating System as an Absolute Beginner?

I cringe every time I hear or read the term “beginner distro” randomly used. Even more so, when I eventually read the lists of distros allegedly better suited for “newbies”. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean to call anyone out, but the unreflected assumption that new users will feel easier “at home” the more polished the Graphical User Interface (GUI) or the better the innards of the operating system are hidden from the user is absurd.

Even leisurely browsing help forums across the Internet, you will quickly realise that new users of any one operating system have the same (or at least stunningly similar) issues. So much so, that a query in your search engine of choice is very likely to present you with “solutions” for an operating system utterly different from your own — sometimes even when you have the mind to particularly state your system.

If you care to look a bit closer, you will sooner or later recognise a strange pattern: Forums dedicated to operating systems being allegedly more user–friendly have an astonishing high percentage of threads marked as “solved” even though there is not a sensible answer to be found in them — alternatively threads are simply abandoned with the original request (and the issue itself) lingering on in data nirvana. Well, Absolute Beginner, good luck with that …

What Kind of Computer User Are You?

I think the best way to find an operating system that will satisfy both your (technical) needs and individual desires is to find out and acknowledge your natural approach to and general attitude towards problem solving. Because, as an old saying goes, the biggest issue in computing is usually sitting in front of the keyboard.

If you refuse to learn new tricks — because, after three weeks in a row without seeing the “Screen of Death”, you know everything there is to know about computers already — every new operating system will likely cause you to fall over and faint.

If, on the other hand, you see every challenge as a chance to a brighter future, it won’t matter much which operating system you pick. Sooner or later, you will manage to customise it to look and feel and run the way you prefer.

Know Your Computer’s Details

I am still of the opinion that a computer is a computer is a computer, but that does not mean everything will work at once, at all, or the same way under all circumstances. Therefore, it’s always a good idea to know — and be able to describe — your machine’s technical features, your peripheral devices, etc. — the environment your new operating system is supposed to handle. If you don’t know them, you will have to wait until after the installation to learn whether or not you made a proper decision (and hope for the best). This can be very frustrating.

Also, when you are looking for help — by way of launching a query in a search engine or posting a question in a forum — you will find it easier to receive useful answers when you are able to provide pertinent information. After all, a particular issue may be caused by either the operating system itself, the desktop environment you employ, or any one of your hardware components.

So knowing your machine’s peculiarities can be quite helpful finding your operating system.

Is the Operating System Well Documented?

This one is a bit tricky. Not every operating system is talked about and explained to the same extent — neither by its developers nor by the user community. Even if you are a weathered user of any one system, it is of advantage to be clear about the potential network and available information you may count on once the sailing happens to get rough.

Knowing an operating system’s “relationships” before installing it may be quite useful.

Here’s an example: Ubuntu is an insanely popular operating system. Searching for anything Ubuntu is likely to trigger possible answers in abundance. Yet a lot of these “possible answers” are exactly this: possibilities (i.e., probably rather useless in your particular case). Similar is true for Linux Mint (yet another user–friendly system, allegedly just perfect for the absolute beginner).

Knowing that Debian is the parent of Ubuntu, and Linux Mint (being built upon Ubuntu’s latest long–term support version) is the grandchild of Debian expands your pool of potentially useful answers dramatically. If you have a rather generic question (simply because you don’t really know what’s wrong) and fail to find answers in the spin–off forums, chances are “ma knows best”.

On the other hand, a Debian user who cannot find the right answer to an individual issue has a good chance to find success in an Ubuntu forum. Given the vast expanse of Ubuntu’s community, it is very likely your query will trigger answers from this corner of the universe anyway.

Here’s another example: ROSA is an operating system of Russian origin. It’s said to be vastly more popular inside Russia than abroad. This seems to be bad news for non–Russian speakers as available English documentation is, well, rudimentary, to put it mildly.

But it is also one of the successors of the discontinued Mandrake Linux, which in turn used to be a fairly popular operating system among not–so–technically–inclined users.

And there is another system, Open Mandriva, that’s built on Mandrake’s legacy.

Eventually, there seems to be some extent of collaboration between ROSA, Open Mandriva, and Red Hat Linux.

So answers found in forums dedicated to Open Mandriva or Fedora are likely to solve issues one may have with ROSA.

As for myself and my new operating system, I had thus far two ridiculously small issues (within two weeks of use, at the time of writing). If I had not been able to solve them, I would still live and be happy.

One was related to the operating system’s particular syntax, which I was still unfamiliar with after switching from a different system. Solving it was a matter of one query. I found the answer in the parent’s forum.

The other one was related to the desktop environment (which was also new to me). Solving it took about half an hour and was a matter of drawing the right conclusion after reading a number of possible approaches of which none did work for me.

Long–Term Support Versus Rolling Release (and Anything in Between)

For an absolute beginner in everything Linux, I would suggest to first try a spin–off (fork, derivate, whatever you want to call it) with long–term support. Depending on how long after the official release you install it, you may have to update your system right away — and face the download of a considerable amount of additional data. While probably not to everyone’s taste, this will give you a fair amount of time to get used to the system until the next upgrade.

Rolling releases (updates of individual applications whenever they are ready) are a typical trait of well–established, independent distros. Most of them don’t seem to have a “don’t break my system” feature, which may be quite stressful for the new user.

I have always felt that the “in–betweens” (fixed–point releases without long–term support) are something for people who are not sure yet whether or not they should unmount the fence. Perhaps it’s just me, but what’s the point of upgrading a working system every six months, as often as not to the point of not recognising it after the next reboot?

Don’t Be Afraid of the Command Line

It appears to be a die–hard rumour that using Linux requires one to be privy to the “dark secrets” and the “black magic” of the shell. Naturally, I don’t have proof, but I deem it possible that a fair number of people out there have been happily using a Linux–based operating system without opening a terminal window even once in years.

Most systems offer more than one way to tweak, configure, maintain them; the command line is merely one of these. Granted, being able to employ the bash effectively is of advantage in many respects, but absolutely necessary it is not.

“When it’s not necessary, why even bother”, you may ask. After all, if there is a convenient GUI, why not press a colourful button instead?

The point is to eliminate the man in the middle, so to speak, and by such gain speed and efficiency. To be able to press a “colourful button” to execute a command, requires first the presentation of a dialog box of some sort which contains this button. Then, the presentation has to be updated to constantly display the current status at any given time. More often than not, you will have to press further buttons, and the game of updating the display starts again. All this costs resources. Your system slows down (even if you may not recognise it every time).

Example: When I started the sentence beginning with “Then, the presentation …”, my system informed me that 35 updates were available. I opened a terminal window (with a single keystroke), entered a simple command and my password, pressed “y” twice in quick succession to confirm that I wanted the system to proceed, and by the time I started to write this paragraph, 230 MB of data were downloaded and installed without interrupting the completion of the previous paragraph and my considerations as to whether I should add this real–life example. This much for speed.

As for efficiency, practically every command there is may be extended with filters (to tell the system exactly how and what to execute) and combined with other commands, so as to kick off a series of routines with a single line of orders. Such is simply not possible in a graphical user interface. Once you have pushed a button a routine starts, and you have no way of pushing another button until this routine will have been completed. Yet on the command line, you may “push several buttons at once” before actually issuing your order. This is (among other things) what people love about the shell.

Conclusion

I have no doubt that the precious reader will find the perfect (or at least optimal) operating system. All you actually have to do is gather as much information as you can before you make an ultimate decision and you will be fine. Don’t forget: To find a proper solution, knowing the issue at hand is paramount.

Here’s a short list to help you begin your quest (in no particular order):

  • Is a version of the operating system available that matches my computer’s architecture (i.e., 32bit, 64bit, ARM, etc.)?
  • Does the operating system support the hardware I happen to employ?
  • Does the operating system come with relevant drivers (free or non–free) for my components to work properly?
  • Is there available documentation or a community, if need be?
  • Is the operating system constantly developed?
  • Is the operating system independent or does it depend on the development of a parent system?